Turkish Christians are shaken by last weekend’s terrorist attack on a Catholic church in Istanbul.
Claimed by ISIS, it comes amid threats that have already caused some believers to shy away from Sunday services. And like the rest of their nation, Christians are confused by details that eschew easy explanations.
“Everyone is a little nervous, questioning the future,” said Ali Kalkandelen, president of the Association of Protestant Churches (TeK). “And for the next few weeks—even months—everyone will watch their backs.”
Two masked gunmen casually walked into Mass at Santa Maria Catholic Church on Sunday morning, shot into the air, and killed one person. Security footage then shows them leaving the building, only slightly less casually than when they entered.
A statement issued by Martin Kmetec, archbishop of Izmir and president of the Episcopal Conference of Turkey, expressed his community’s “shock” that an innocent person was killed in a “sacred space of faith in God.” It demanded better security for churches, a curb on the culture of hatred and religious discrimination, and that the truth be revealed.
Shortly thereafter, security services arrested two foreign nationals, from Russia and Tajikistan. ISIS later published a statement saying the attack was in response to its call to “target Jews and Christians everywhere.” The statement was followed by another from a group calling itself ISIS’s “Turkey Province,” which said that it fired its pistols during the unbelievers’ “polytheistic rituals.”
While ISIS has conducted multiple terrorist attacks in Turkey, this is the first claimed by a local branch. The so-called province first emerged in 2019 but had only produced one propagandistic video.
But on January 4, ISIS’s spokesman called for worldwide targeting, which it later tallied to 110 attacks in 12 countries, killing or wounding at least 610 people. Turkey had already detained 2,086 suspected terrorists and arrested 529 since June 2023. Dozens more were detained following the Santa Maria attack, and 23 will be deported.
Kalkandelen said that amid the ongoing arrests, church attendance has declined. Families have kept their children at home, while new believers and seekers keep their distance. The TeK statement expressed condolences to the Catholic community, confidence in the authorities, and a plea to stop provocative discourse.
“This terrorist attack is obviously not an isolated or freak act,” stated the Protestant association. “From now on, the dark power behind it must be fully exposed so that it can no longer … terrorize Christians, minorities, and anyone with common sense.”
Condemning the attack, Istanbul’s mayor said the second referent was imprecise.
“There are no minorities in this city or this country, we are all actual citizens,” stated Ekrem Imamoglu. He later added, “We will never allow those who try to disrupt our unity and peace [to attack] the places of faith in our city.”
An Istanbul parliamentarian called attacks on Christian citizens “treason.” President Recep Erdoğan personally called Anton Bulai, the parish priest. Flowers and candles were laid in the 19th-century cathedral, with a Turkish flag draped over the door.
Turkey is ranked No. 50 on the Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 nations where it is hardest to be a Christian. It counts 169,000 believers in the country, while the US State Department estimates there are roughly 7,000–10,000 Protestants.
The Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox church, Bartholomew I, paid his respects at the church the day after the attack. His community has recently swelled with an influx of 100,000 Russians and Ukrainians following the war. But Turkey’s 25,000 Catholics have experienced violence before.
Back in 1981, a Turkish citizen attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II. In 2006, a priest was killed in the Black Sea city of Trazbon. In 2010, a bishop was stabbed and decapitated. Located next to a fish market along the Bosphorus Straits, the Santa Maria church now making headlines had suffered threats in 2011 for illuminating its cross, and in 2016 a mob had tried to break down its door.
More recently since the war in Gaza, anti-Israel graffiti was sprayed on the walls of Istanbul’s Orthodox Church of St. Mary of the Mongols and Phanar Greek Orthodox College. Most of Turkey’s synagogues have been closed amid widespread Turkish protests.
Kalkandelen said that for the past few years, the Protestant community has witnessed only sporadic violence. Its most recent annual human rights report tallied only one incident of vandalism among its 186 national fellowships in 2022, alongside the stabbing of a pastor and the beating of a pastor’s child.
But for more than a decade, Turkish media has incited hostile attitudes against the West. It has increased since the Israel-Hamas war, with Erdoğan defending Hamas as a legitimate resistance group. Popular sentiment links Christians with America and Europe, Kalkandelen said, keeping the community tense.
“We were almost expecting something to happen in the country,” he said.
But what happened was odd.
“They killed one person, could have killed more, but we cannot understand why,” said Soner Tufan, general manager of Petra Media Group, a Turkish evangelical radio station. “One or many, it doesn’t matter from their perspective.”
His broadcasts have urged Christians to remain calm, he added, and there have been debates on if there was a hidden plan to spark chaos in society. Prayer has been recommended.
Local reporting offered mixed testimony about the victim. Identified as 52-year-old Tuncer Cihan, footage shows gunmen following him into the church. One relative said he was mentally ill and not actually the target. His uncle said he was considering Christianity. It is reported that he had been attending the church since December, and Kalkandelen said Bulai, the Santa Maria priest, told him Cihan was a believer but not yet baptized. But the district mayor stated that the cleric called him simply “a good person.”
Cihan was buried in an Alevi cemetery belonging to Turkey’s largest Muslim minority.
“We have two communities who are today united in sorrow,” stated an Istanbul priest.
Such evidence might suggest an honor killing. But the mayor also stated that Bulai told him the terrorist’s gun jammed during the attack. Perhaps more victims were intended.
Seated in the front row of Sunday’s Mass, unharmed, was Poland’s consul general and his family. Local reporting stated that the attackers drove a car from Poland over a year ago but never previously used it. Furthermore, the Santa Maria church is known as Italian, administered by Franciscan friars. Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni visited Turkey just a week earlier.
“Maybe it was a political message,” said Kalkandelen.
Whatever the explanation, it is being received ominously by local Christians. The Istanbul priest said the community was in shock and would likely have to reevaluate its security posture.
But aware of this possibility, a local Catholic praised her priest as someone who helped everyone regardless of their race or religion.
“He wanted that church to be open to everyone who wanted to come in,” stated Layla Yedicam, “but that’s not going to be the case anymore, I don’t think.”
The church will reopen on Thursday.
Kalkandelen has been encouraging believers to keep going to church. He quoted 2 Timothy 1:7—God has not given us a spirit of fear. Giving in would slow church growth, he said, and with the lack of witness, seekers might turn their back on Christ.
Whether the violence was religious or political in intention, Kalkandelen believes that it was above all a spiritual attack.
“Satan will never stop attacking Christians,” he said. “Do not let this become a stumbling block in our relationship with God.”